Duologue: A Conversation with Poppy Ackroyd

With her 2012 debut ‘Escapement’, Brighton-based composer Poppy Ackroyd entered the same rare air as such esteemed innovators of modern classical and electronic music as Nils Frahm and Hauschka. Classically trained on violin and piano, she creates utterly mesmerizing music by manipulating and multi-tracking sounds primarily from these two instruments in sometimes unconventional ways, an approach she expanded upon with her second album ‘Feathers’ in 2015. This year she brings us a flurry of new projects to enjoy starting with her new mini-album ‘Sketches’ in which Poppy reinterprets pieces from her first two records as pure solo piano pieces along with several new compositions. She also has a brand new full-length album in the works for release in November and all this in the midst of performing as part of Hidden Orchestra, who themselves have a wonderful new record out called ‘Dawn Chorus’. I am ecstatic that Poppy was willing take time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for Stationary Travels readers and thus kick-off the very first in our new series of artist interviews called Duologues.

Thanks so much, Poppy for taking the time to talk with us.  When it came to recording Sketches, what guided you in selecting the pieces you chose from ‘Escapement’ and ‘Feathers’? Was there anything about those particular songs that drew you toward wanting to rework them?

Thank you for talking to me! 🙂

For ‘Sketches’ I started off by reworking all of the tracks on the first two albums, and from there I simply selected the ones that I felt really came together the best, and could stand alone as solo piano pieces.

‘Glass Sea’ was originally written as a solo piano piece and then rearranged for ‘Escapement’ to include extra piano layers, rhythms and field recordings so it was fairly straightforward to rework in comparison to some others. I have always performed the tracks ‘Croft’, ‘Feathers’ and ‘Birdwoman’ live in more simple arrangements than on the record so they came together very naturally too. Strata and Rain which are built around more simple piano riffs and layers of beats, strings and inside piano sounds were more of a challenge to decide how to arrange, however these are among my favourites on the album. There is a quietness and simplicity to them in their new stripped down form which is a nice contrast to the other more busy tracks.

I am very interested in your process for reworking a piece. The new interpretations are so free-flowing, almost unfettered at times. Did you map them out in advance or was there an element of improvisation to your approach?

I had two days in the studio to record ‘Sketches’ and so I wanted to go in well prepared. I began by choosing which elements of each track I felt needed to be in each arrangement and then I would play the track over and over again on the piano, improvising around those ideas. After a while some things would stay and others would develop and change. It would then finally reach a point where things were no longer changing, everything felt how it was supposed to be, and these are the versions you hear on ‘Sketches’. This process took several months and so by the time of recording I knew the pieces inside out, however there are sections in many of the pieces which are still flexible and do slightly vary between each performance.

The new pieces on ‘Sketches’ are really lovely. I was especially mesmerized by “Trains” – the way you emulated the cadence of their movements and there seems to be a strong narrative element to it as well.  Is there a particular story or inspiration behind that piece?

With ‘Trains’ I wanted to capture the feeling of the train journey from Brighton to London. I do this journey a lot and there are stretches of it that are absolutely beautiful. The track starts with the idea of the train pulling away from the station, and continues highlighting the constant rhythms and movement that you hear, as well as sudden changes hinting at the idea of the train going through tunnels, or the landscape outside changing.  

There are so many colors in your music. I read a press quote that said you “paint with sound” which really struck me because the very same thought occurred to me as I was listening to ‘Sketches’. Do you see that as an apt analogy? 

That’s a nice thing to say and yes, I think it is apt. I grew up surrounded by art – my father is a printmaker, my mother runs an art gallery and my brother is a painter – so maybe that has had an effect on me! 

I believe you have had a chance to perform some of the new pieces live. Is that correct? Do you find that they change the dynamic of your connection to the audience in any way?

I have performed a few of the reworked tracks live as well as recently doing a few more solo piano concerts in general. My usual set up involves electronics, I need to wear headphones when performing and I have a lot to think about with mixing and looping. With a solo piano performance I am able to really listen to the piano, allowing me to focus even more on the sound I am making. I find I can be even more free and expressive in this setting.

Speaking of live performances, you’ve held the stage both as a solo artist and as part of an ensemble with Hidden Orchestra. How would you contrast those experiences? 

They are very different. With Hidden Orchestra the pressure falls mainly on Joe (Acheson) who writes all the music for the project, however we are all there to support him in any way we can. On stage it is always nice to have others with you. With the solo project I do miss that. If something goes wrong there is nowhere to hide and that can be quite nerve-wracking at times. Luckily it doesn’t happen that often!

So, ‘Sketches’ is coming out shortly, but you also have another release due in November. Is there anything you can tell us about the direction of the new record?

I have continued the theme from the first two albums. The first album ‘Escapement’ was made using sounds from just the piano and violin, and then following on ‘Feathers’ used a wider range of keyboard and string instruments. The new album again uses strings and keyboards but also features woodwind and melodic percussion instruments. I have had a few guest players in the studio for the new album, and have treated their recordings in the same way as I have with the piano and violin in the past – using sounds made by traditional and extended techniques to build melodic layers, textures and beats.

Looking further down the road are there any other projects you have either on the horizon or already in the works that you can tell us about?

At the moment I am just focusing on finishing the new album and so it is hard to think past that. I have a lot of plans on what to do next but it is looking like this coming autumn and spring will be filled with traveling, both solo and with Hidden Orchestra. 

Sketches is available on CD or vinyl LP from One Little Indian Records and digitally from Poppy’s Bandcamp site. One Little Indian is also offering for the first time editions of both ‘Escapement’ and ‘Feathers’ on CD & vinyl as well.

Links:  One Little Indian (CD/Vinyl) |  Bandcamp (digital)  |  Poppy Ackroyd